Jason and the Scorchers:
Loud But Polite Country Boys

(written in 1995 but not previously published)
by Rick Cornell
First rule: Always separate the facts from the myth. In this case, the story goes that young Jason Ringenberg left his folks' farm in Illinois to try to make a go of it in Nashville. Upon hitting the big city, he came upon Warner Hodges and Jeff Johnson - the rowdiest guitar player and bassist, respectively, in town - lying in the gutter, and three quarters of Jason and the Scorchers were born. Just another in a long line of rock 'n' roll legends, right? "Actually, that is sort of true," explains the Illinois-to-Nashville transplant in question. "I grew up on a hog farm, and when I came to Nashville it was a guitar-slung-over-my-back kind of thing." He adds, "And that is where they (Hodges and Johnson) spent a lot of time in those days."

Whatever the origin, Jason next moved his two new friends from the gutter into a basement studio and recruited drummer Perry Baggs; as Jason and the Nashville Scorchers, the quartet released a pair of attention-getting EPs: "Reckless Country Soul" (1982) and "Fervor" (1983). They continued raising a holy (and often unholy) ruckus for the next six years, putting out three full-length albums that combined elements of country, heavy metal, folk, and punk - a ground-breaking sound that perhaps the band didn't get enough credit for refining, if not inventing. "Thanks," says the soft-spoken and ever-gracious Jason. "If nothing else, we can point to that. I guess we were pioneers. But the pioneers take the arrows." Whether from hostile fire or for other reasons, the band called it quits in 1989 after releasing THUNDER AND FIRE, which was recorded with a second guitarist but without Johnson.

Cut to 1994, and much to the music world's surprise - not to mention the surprise of the band members - the original Scorchers got back together to record an album and ultimately to get back on the road to support it. Even more surprising is that the reunion was Johnson's idea. Just like they never left, huh? "Well, not really," offers Jason with a laugh. "There were some readjustments, some ratcheting down loose connections."

Loose connections or not, the comeback album, A BLAZING GRACE (on Mammoth), doesn't sound like it was made by four guys that had just returned from a 5-year hiatus (Jason had kept a little busy by releasing a solo country album, ONE FOOT IN THE HONKY TONK.) As the title suggests, it's an incendiary roots-rock fest, with stops along the way to deliver two lovely ballads and in keeping with band tradition, two choice covers: George Jones' "Why Baby Why" and a moonshine-as-rocket-fuel version of "Take Me Home, Country Roads." Other artists Scorched in the past include Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones, Phil Ochs, and Eddy Arnold, with Jason (whose musical heroes list is a Hall of Fame roll call: Dylan, Johnny Horton, Merle Haggard, Gram Parsons, Hank Sr., Neil Young, The Band) the guy who brings the songs to the rest of the band. "I never play them the original. I'll play it on acoustic guitar. Most of the time they don't even know it's a cover. . . . They wouldn't know Phil Ochs from filibuster. And (in reference to the band's marvelous take on "Absolutely Sweet Marie") I doubt any of them have ever listened to BLONDE ON BLONDE," he finishes with a laugh. How about "Take Me Home, Country Roads?" "It seems that we've always played that song - we were born playing that song. You can't be a citizen of planet Earth and not have heard "Country Roads."

It's not uncommon to see a line about "the two sides of Jason" in a review or article, something like "polite country boy vs. deranged frontman," which tickles Ringenberg. It's a Jekyll-and-Hyde scenario echoed in GRACE's lead-off cut "Cry By Night Operator," a stomper about a Young Republican by day/bar hound by night character. "That's a fun song to do. It's not autobiographical, but I guess there is that dichotomy - certain connections, certain parallels with my life." Watching the group's wide-open show in Carrboro, I witness this dichotomy firsthand. I can't believe that this pogoing, arm-flapping Jason on stage - looking like Neil Young reincarnated as a hyperactive Tennessee choir boy - is the same guy who about "Well, thank you, Rick"-ed me to death and came darn close to calling me "sir" just three days ago when we spoke on the phone. And this applies to the rest of the band: their kinfolk (most of whom were involved in traditional music) and Nashville address say "country," but their high-octane presence screams "rock 'n' roll!" I finally figured 'em out after hearing them rip through "Broken Whiskey Glass" (featuring the quintessential split-personality line "She went to church in her party dress") and after having Hodges say goodnight to us by sincerely suggesting "Y'all be careful driving home now. These are just four nice country boys who like to wear their rock 'n' roll dress.

Rick Cornell

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Chuck Taggart (e-mail chuck)